Above almost all of the DC pantheon, Swamp Thing stands out as unique and weird. He’s more plant than man, more horror than hero. He’s hard to do justice to, and outside of a few classic runs, writers have struggled to get the character right. Now, Swamp Thing is coming to the DC Universe streaming service, hot on the heels of the excellent Doom Patrol, produced by horror master (and Aquaman director) James Wan. While I wouldn’t call myself a Swamp Thing Super Fan, I’ve read enough of the classic stuff to know what the story is supposed to feel like. So now it’s time to dive into the show’s first episode and see how it works as a pilot for the show and what it can tell us about where the show might go from here.
I’ll say right up front that Swamp Thing doesn’t immediately “wow” me like Doom Patrol did. Immediately, Doom Patrol owned its weirdness and made that a core feature of the show. It laid out its tone, look, and pacing right away and stuck with it through the whole show. And it hurts Swamp Thing to follow on the heels of that brilliant surprise, at least to start.
Light spoilers for the first episode of Swamp Thing follow.
Swamp Thing is the story of a biologist named Alec Holland. Caught in an explosion while studying a unique compound, Alec’s body and consciousness merge with the ultra-dense life of the swamp he was studying in. The creature that results, the combination of swamp life and man, is the creature called Swamp Thing. That’s the elevator pitch for the character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson.
It’s in the Water
For Swamp Thing fans, the opening moments of the show will be a little confusing and jarring. The scene opens already in the swamp. Three men sit in a flat-bottomed swamp boat, rolling slowly through the dense water with the intention of dropping something into the water. There’s dynamite, but that’s not what they’re there for. A buoy sits at the bottom of the boat, meant for the men to place into the water.
Already, green tendrils squirm just out of sight, moving in a way plants don’t. The buoy never makes it into the water and, in a few short moments two of the men are dead and the boat they were in is hefted five feet above the water in a tangle of vines that didn’t exist a moment ago. But whatever this is, it isn’t Swamp Thing, as we’ll soon find out.
This is a great start: Swamp Thing is a horror mystery story, and that’s exactly what the show should be. This first episode is bursting with potential.
A few scenes stand out in particular for the way they gave me hope for the show. Following the trail of an unknown infection, Holland and Dr. Abby Arcane – Swamp Thing’s on-again-off-again love interest/personal psychic – run into each other at the house of one of the men who was on the boat back in that first scene. The pair come upon the man standing in front of his mirror, frozen. Or, well, his body is standing there. But roots and vines have burst forth from his body – especially his mouth – and the roots are holding him in place, as if they sprouted all at once. James Wan’s influence is definitely on display here.
Later, the man’s body has been relocated to the hospital’s morgue, where Holland and Arcane are trying to understand what happened to him. Alec already has an idea, but while they’re taking turns gazing longingly into a microscope, the body behind them comes to life, the vines bursting forth in a monstrous mass that reminds me of something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It looks great and the effects are pretty convincing, especially for a television-sized budget.
The pilot is poorly paced, though, and bigger chunks than I’d like consist of people talking in brightly-lit rooms about how Something Is Definitely Going On. The chemistry between Alec (Andy Bean) and Abby (Crystal Reed) also feels pretty forced. Shortly after they’ve met they’re already giving each other doe eyes, and the show doesn’t do enough to support it.
Still Planting Seeds
Real hope comes in with the second episode. There, we get our first real look at Swamp Thing, when Abby chases the young girl who fell ill in the first episode into the swamp. It becomes clear very quickly that he’s a force to be reckoned with when another one of the Sunderland goons (the guys who died in the first episode) runs afoul of him while chasing that same girl. The violence here borders on comedic, but it still works.
At this point, it still feels like the show is setting up the chessboard. We have Alec and Abby and a variety of characters from the comics that suggest they might be chasing the classic Alan Moore storyline.
The biggest hurdle with Swamp Thing is that it doesn’t have the clear voice that Doom Patrol has, and its shortened episode count is dispiriting to behold. A longer show definitely isn’t always a better one, but it’s hard not to wonder what we’re going to be looking at when the show wraps in July. Will the show end cleanly, or was it cut off before it could thrive? Is more Swamp Thing on the way, or is it well and truly canceled?
I believe there’s a good show in here. It has great atmosphere and it’s really leaning hard on the horror. But I’m not ready to start telling all my friends that this is the reason to get DC Universe yet.
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